A Q&A with Taylor Branch, author of 'The Clinton Tapes'
It has been nearly forty years since three young Democratic activists named Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham, and Taylor Branch moved into a small apartment together in Austin, Texas, to wage a presidential campaign for George McGovern. In the decades since, the Clintons have taken that political fire to the center of American political life, while Branch has chosen a quieter course, writing three definitive volumes on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and winning both the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” grant. Yet at the height of Bill Clinton’s ascent—for the full eight years of the presidency—the historian and the politician reunited for a secret project, hidden from even Clinton’s closest aides. Meeting late at night and sometimes through the night, Clinton and Branch embarked on a series of seventy-nine conversations about politics, the presidents, the Whitewater investigation, and yes, even Monica—recording every word for posterity. Acutely aware that their tapes could be subpoenaed at any moment and desperate to avoid making them public, Clinton squirreled away the cassettes in his sock drawer and has never spoken of them nor made them public. But this month, Branch releases a 670-page mammoth tome, The Clinton Tapes, that mines those conversations and delves into Clinton’s presidency and state of mind through a tumultuous and historic eight years. Branch sat down on the sprawling porch of his Victorian home in Baltimore to discuss the project, the experience, and the book.—WIL S. HYLTON
Let’s start in the fall of 1992. Out of nowhere, the president-elect calls you up and invites you to a dinner party at Katherine Graham’s house. What happened?
It was bizarre. When we were kids, we were buddies down in Texas, trying to get McGovern elected. We lived together, but I hadn’t seen him in twenty years, and I had no idea why he asked me to dinner. I had kind of reprocessed him out of my friendship, into being a politician. This is a guy who’s run off to run for Congress in Arkansas, when all the rest of us were very alienated, and had this pile-driver political career, and so I had reprogrammed him away from somebody that you could know as a regular person. This is a president of the United States! He may just be all greed and selfishness. I was definitely tamping down my expectations.
Had you been a supporter in the campaign?
No! I thought his “forgotten middle class” sounded like Nixon’s “silent majority.” It was a formula—part of being a member of this species called “politician.” But within twenty seconds, I completely reconnected with him. He just knocked me over intellectually. He comes up and out of the blue asks me all these questions about historic preservation, saying, “I read your footnotes, and I want to make sure there are things like that for historians in fifty years.” Even if I hadn’t known him, even if it had been Richard Nixon or George W. Bush, I would have been floored that he was thinking about that already. This guy who hadn’t even taken office yet is thinking about raw material for historians fifty years later.
Within weeks, you were swept up in a whirlwind with him—staying up all night to write the inaugural address, being onstage during the ceremony, and then actually entering the White House for the first time with Bill and Hillary.
The day before, I thought I was going down to hear a final reading of the inaugural and wound up working all night, then being onstage with no seat or anything, just crouched down. And after the parade, he said, “Come on, let’s go to the White House!” So it was just the three of us walking in, he and Hillary and me! I mean, he literally didn’t know where the Lincoln Bedroom was. We were wandering around, poking in closets.
How did you decide to begin recording interviews for history?
He was angling to get me to move into the White House as house historian. But I responded more to the notion of preserving his thoughts. I only realized later on what a tremendous commitment that meant for him. Because the only time he could fit me in was when he was tired. There were stunning moments; I would be talking to him late at night and his eyes would go up, just roll back in his head. He would fall asleep in the middle of a sentence.
At the end of each session, sometimes late at night or even early the next morning, you would drive home to Baltimore and talk into a tape recorder the whole time. It must have been exhausting for you as well.
I would do those dictations until I dropped. I would sit here outside the house and dictate notes until I fell asleep in the truck. Because I felt that it was a significant experience that I should preserve. But on the tapes, there are a few times where it’s amazing: I would yawn involuntarily four times a minute! Because my workday on the King books always started at five in the morning, and sometimes I wouldn’t know I was going to go down to the White House until six at night. They would call up and say, “Can you come down at eight?” And I’d scramble and go down there, have this session with him, and it’d be two o’clock in the morning, and I’d be driving and dictating, then wake up the next morning again. But having that drive home to Baltimore for dictation was a forced habit that turned out to be very good.
The level of detail in your conversations is overwhelming. You discuss the most minute foreign-policy details, political calculations. Did you need to expand your reading habits to keep up with him?
Not really, because I actually didn’t know a lot of that stuff! I would just set a subject out there and say, “This seems to be a significant topic.” I didn’t know the background and the parameters; he would explain those. And sometimes I would set a subject out there and he would give me what was already in The New York Times. Sometimes he would say, “We’re going to appeal. End of story.” And we’d move on.
The Bill Clinton in this book is very different than the version we came to know in the press. You describe a guy who was steadfast and idealistic, very different from the wishy-washy, flip-flopping caricature who let Dick Morris tell him what to do.
It was almost like a credential for old liberals to look down on Clinton, because if you looked down on Clinton, you could say, “He’s betrayed liberalism,” but you didn’t have to uphold anything yourself. All you had to do was talk about what a shit he was or what a sellout he was and you could get this cheap credential.
Meanwhile, you’re seeing this guy whose face is red with allergies, he’s so tired that his eyes are rolling back in his head.… He’s the last fighting baby boomer.
Well, yeah. For example, I admire Obama greatly, but if you compare Clinton and Obama on the National Rifle Association, Obama said, “It’s not worth it.” Right from the get-go. “You can’t win.” And Clinton was going after the NRA and assault weapons and cop-killer bullets the whole time. And he paid for it, and maybe it was a mistake, because it certainly hurt him in the 1994 congressional elections. But he did stick to his guns, as it were. He took risks. On Haiti—restoring Aristide. I would hear him say it: “This is going to hurt my presidency.” Or, “I could go down the tubes for this.”
In all the Kennedy and Johnson tapes you’ve listened to, do you hear the same resolve?
In some ways, Kennedy was just the opposite. People would idealize him, but then on the tapes, you hear him trying to kill Castro and all this other stuff. It’s disillusioning. And Johnson does the Civil Rights bill, but then he does the Vietnam War—and you hear them saying essentially, “We know this is not going to work, but we’re going to do it anyway.” Then Nixon promises to end the war, and four years later the war is still going. Then you have Watergate. So it was kind of like we had this post–World War II optimism about politics that was yanked out of our generation by hard experience. In some ways, Hillary and I were more typical of our generation than Bill. We were bruised and disillusioned with politics. We had more in common with each other politically than either of us had with Bill. He seemed to be on automatic pilot: “I’m going to run for office!” At the time, I didn’t connect that to idealism. I connected it to ambition. The notion that it came from a sense of idealism didn’t rear up for me until I was able to watch him in the White House, seeing why he would do things.
How did you contain that for eight years, listening to people say the opposite about him?
I couldn’t communicate with people, because I felt like I was in a different galaxy. I just dropped out. I didn’t see a way of fighting it that didn’t endanger the project. I couldn’t challenge my friend [Washington Post critic] Jon Yardley, who would sit around and bitch and moan about Clinton: “He’s no good, he doesn’t care about anything, he doesn’t believe in anything.” I couldn’t say, “Jon, I know that’s not true.” I couldn’t start that conversation, because the only way I could combat it would be to say, “I’ve been around Clinton a lot, and my experience is totally different.” And then some story would come out that he had these tapes, and they would get subpoenaed. So I just basically had to be quiet and not talk to people.
There are several parallels between Clinton and Martin Luther King—both are southern, same generation, men of faith, orators. But then there’s adultery. How did you process that?
Very painfully. I can’t say I’ve got any great answers. I think King got something good out of it, in a perverse way. He was driven to seek penance by public sacrifice for private failings. He would preach about the mystery of evil: Why could we not cast out this demon? But you know, with Clinton, I just had this assumption that when you hear all this, some of it’s true. I assumed that he had resolved to make it true no longer. Which is pretty much what King did. He resolved openly to his aides, “There’s too much at stake here. I’ve got to stop this.” And some of the greatest regret in King’s life was that he couldn’t do it. With Clinton, what he said was that it was a real lapse of feeling sorry for himself. He said it had to do with politics. Now, most people think that these compulsions have to do with more fundamental human things. I don’t know whether that’s true. All I know is that he said it happened when he thought he was doing a good job and got sucker punched. I didn’t read the Lewinsky stuff until I was working on the book. It was so tawdry. It was depressing to me. It’s fervid and tormented and brief. There were two bookends to it: He had these trysts with her during the shutdown and then banished her to the Pentagon or wherever the hell she went, and then she came back in that period right after the ’96 election, when he thought [the Whitewater investigation] was going to go away and it didn’t. He says he was feeling sorry for himself because of what was going on in politics, and that he just lost it. That’s what he said.
Was he a Lothario in 1972?
No, and I was sharing an apartment with he and Hillary. I had just separated from my wife, had virtually no social life, and they were all over each other. The only story was that we were having a hard time getting this woman politician to endorse McGovern, and the McGovern campaign sent in a guy who had worked for Jack Kennedy. So he met her, and came back and said, “She just needs to get laid. I know just the guy.” We were stunned. And then we realized he was serious! He went to the phone to call this guy in Boston and bring him down to Texas! And Clinton took the phone from him and said, “We’re not gonna do that, and if you do that, we’re leaving.” I didn’t do anything. I was paralyzed. And in retrospect, if Clinton was cynical about women, I would think he would have been more like that guy. Now, maybe he developed it later. I really don’t know.
It was interesting to read your descriptions of Bill and Hillary. Halfway through the impeachment trial, the doorman at the White House refused to let you in because they were making out in a hallway.
Well, that only happened once. I don’t know if their relationship is romantic, but it’s not cold. Sometimes when I tell people that they finish each other’s sentences, people say, “That’s because it’s a power alliance.” Like a medieval marriage between the prince of Spain and the queen of Austria. But there’s warmth there. There’s communion. They would hold hands. How much eroticism is in there, I have no idea. But it was striking.
Have you shown them the book?
I just took two copies up to Chappaqua last week. Hillary has it in Africa now, and he’s been off on this North Korea thing. But he did call. He’s called a couple of times to fuss about things. But he has enormous tolerance for honest criticism. I think he can take it raw, as long as he doesn’t detect that it’s done for malice. I was trying to show him the way he really is, and I think he respects that.
wil s. hylton is a gq correspondent.